IOWA CITY — Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens might turn out to be a yin-and-yang deal for the Hawkeyes. Or, maybe a “sturm und drang, which translates from German “storm and stress.”
That would work for a pair of college linebackers.
Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker would take storm and stress or yin and yang. He would more likely start and be somewhat happy with solid and serviceable.
“They’re fun to coach,” Parker said. “They’re young. They’re getting better. They play hard. They make mistakes, which you know they’re going to make those mistakes. You like to cure those mistakes and then hope they don’t blow some fuses out there as soon as that stadium is full.”
And that is kind or where the weakside linebacker position is for the Hawkeyes.
Kirksey and Hitchens, the either/or proposition at the position since the spring depth chart in March, are definitely fuses. A little more than a week before the first game, it’s impossible to tell if the fuses blow up or blow out.
“We’re going to put the best one out there,” linebackers coach Darrell Wilson said. “All spring, they’ve been neck-and-neck. They’re maturing physically, which is important, and mentally, really picking up. I’ve been pretty pleased with the way they’ve moved around and picked up the calls and checks. They’re really good football players.”
Kirksey, a rangy 6-2, 215-pounder, was a ready-made linebacker. He came to Iowa from Hazelwood (Mo.) East High School, where he was coached by Mike Jones, the St. Louis Ram whose tackle of Tennessee Titans’ wide receiver Kevin Dyson sealed Super Bowl XXXIV for the Rams.
“I’ve grown from last year, but I still have a lot to learn,” Kirksey said. “I’m still looking up to the upperclassmen and learning technique from them to help progress.”
You know Kirksey wants to be here and feels incredibly comfortable in Iowa City. During his first days on the UI campus, Kirksey’s father, Elmer, passed away. Christian has a picture of his father tattooed on his right shoulder.
“The team and the coaches basically pulled me in as family,” said Kirksey, who played as a true freshman on special teams last fall. “They were always here for me when I needed them. I give credit to the team for being their and giving me a family atmosphere.”
Hitchens also played as a true freshman. He played as a safety. And then, Iowa found itself down to maybe two running backs. Hitchens rushed for 3,864 yards at Clearview (Ohio) High School, and so there he was a running back in October.
“I played it on scout team and that was it,” said the 6-1, 224-pounder. “I just helped out the coaches. They needed an extra running back. Whatever makes the team better.”
Instead of going back to safety after the running back emergency subsided, Hitchens found himself with the linebackers. Against Missouri’s high-flying spread offense, guided by NFL first-round draft pick Blaine Gabbert, Hitchens found himself in the game.
“I came in as a safety and it doesn’t look like I’ll ever play that position,” Hitchens said. “I think I’ve found my home.”
Kirksey and Hitchens are a “slash” the depth chart. Iowa doesn’t usually go the either/or route when it comes to starting linebacker.
Don’t get too caught up in how they look, either. Yes, Kirksey is taller and leaner than Hitchens, whose build screams “box linebacker.”
Wilson believes they can do it all. And that’s really the point here.
“They’re really athletic,” Wilson said. “At one point, Anthony was a running back, slash, safety. I like that transition. Kirksey was a linebacker, but a smaller guy who could run. He’s maturing physically. They both play well against the run. It’s a tough decision, but a good one to have.”
Iowa’s schedule is different this season. Ohio State and Wisconsin — two of the Big Ten’s “power” teams — are out. Nebraska and Purdue are in. That’s two teams powered by massive O-lines traded for two spread, speed teams.
Kirksey and/or Hitchens give Iowa’s defense some flexibility. Wilson believes what the pair lacks in size will be made up for in speed and aggressiveness.
“You keep hearing, ‘Iowa’s going to the lighter, smaller linebackers,’ but they are still tough football players who can tackle, one, and then use their hands,” Wilson said. “Sometimes, being quick and aggressive is better than that big, sluggy guy who maybe can’t get there.
“You want physical kids who can get there [tackle] and get out and play in space. . . . I think that’s the route we’ve gone with these ‘backers. They might seem light, but they’re still very tough, physical football players who can hold their own in the running game.”
That’s one or the other or both.
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